Last night at Old First Church, the One Great City Duo of guitarist and soprano Alexandra Iranfar and guitarist Timothy Sherren gave their third recital in the Old First Concerts series. Since their debut in November of 2012, this couple has built up, often through their own arrangements, a striking repertoire of selections all benefiting for the intimate setting of voice and guitar. Last night’s program was distinguished by new and recent works by two composers with whom they have been working at least since the beginning of this year. This past March they visited the Center for New Music (C4NM) with a program entitled Impulses, which featured world premieres of music written for them by two composers with ties to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), Eric Choate and Shahab Paranj. Last night they revisited the Choate selection, a setting of Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Dream within a Dream” and added another world premiere, this time settings of the first two poems in Poe’s The Bells.
Since his studies with David Conte led to receiving his Master of Music degree from SFCM, Choate has established himself with a variety of positions in the Bay Area, including Director of Music at Transfiguration Episcopal Church in San Mateo and SFCM Conservatory Chorus Director, as well as teaching Musicianship for the San Francisco Girls Chorus. While Choate’s SFCM Graduate Recital in March of 2014 involved his working with an impressive variety of resources, it has been clear that he particularly enjoys vocal music and just as clear that he approaches composition with a solid appreciation for the text he is setting, not only on the surface level of meaning but also through the verbal devices with which the poet makes the text more than a mere exercise in semantics.
“A Dream within a Dream” is a short poem in two stanzas, both concluding with the couplet
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.
(slightly varied in the second stanza). It may be read as a meditation on human psychology written about half a century before the very concept of “psychology” as a scientific discipline would emerge. Poe sensitivity to word sounds goes far beyond rhyme and rhythm; and there was much to appreciate in how Choate used Poe’s sonorities as a point of departure, rather than just using music to mimic them. (There would have been more to appreciate had the text been included in the program book.) Iranfar’s diction clearly respected Poe’s words, while the guitar lines imaginatively reflected the tenuous relationship between reality and what mind makes of it. Nevertheless, it was clear that Choate’s waters ran deeper than could be apprehended through a single listening experience.
His settings of the first two poems from The Bells, on the other hand, were far more accessible. Here he could play on the role taken by onomatopoeia in Poe’s texts; but, once again, Choate knew how to get beyond mimicking Poe’s sounds for making the vocal line sound like a “pitched reading” of the words. What may have been most interesting was his approach to rhythm. Both poems had essentially the same rhythmic structure, based on a duple metre. However, while this metre was evident in the first setting of “Silver Bells,” Choate turned to a triple metre for the second setting of “Golden Bells.” Thus, while Poe’s contrast resided primarily on the semantic plane, Choate developed it through a more underlying grammatical level. Because these poems did have a text sheet, both Choate’s capacity for invention and One Great City’s realization of that invention could be better appreciated.
The other former SFCM composition student featured on the program was Shahab Paranj, who studied with David Garner and moved to New York after getting his degree. One Great City gave the premiere of “Sahari,” the name of a morning prayer song from a small village in Iran, at C4NM. It is now the first movement of a two-movement guitar duo, followed by “Charkhe Davvaur,” a study in the contrast between Persian and Western rhythms. Both of these are relatively short impressionistic pieces clearly derived from Paranj’s Iranian background and distinguished by how One Great City could innovatively use guitar technique to evoke the impressions of another culture (one responsible for ancestors of the modern guitar dating back to ancient Persian society).
The other major composition for two guitars was an E major coupling of prelude and fugue by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. Following the model of Johann Sebastian Bach, Castelnuovo-Tedesco composed preludes and fugues in all 24 keys (major and minor), all written for guitar duo and collected under the title Les Guitars bien tempérées (the well-tempered guitars). This provided an ideal platform for One Great City to display their solid command of the interleaving of multiple voices in counterpoint.
Less compelling were the arrangements of three keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti for two guitars prepared by Julian Gray and Ronald Pearl. These selections came close to holding Scarlatti’s scores under a magnifying glass. However, the sense of thoroughly accounting for every note he wrote tended to impede the sense of overall flow that brings so much life to these sonatas when they are played at the keyboard. Whether the problem resided in the arrangement or the performance, there was too much flesh and not enough spirit.
Far more spirited was the concluding Excursions Suite of Sherren’s own arrangements. Excursions is also the title of the new recording by the One Great City Duo, which is due for release at the beginning of next year. The suite was framed to begin with songs by Ned Rorem and conclude with those by Cole Porter, and Iranfar knew how to shape them all and develop a clear sense of the wide contrast between these composers. The title comes from the title of a four-movement solo piano suite by Samuel Barber, which was represented last night by its second and fourth movements. The second movement, marked “In slow blues tempo” in the score, was particularly effective for the ability of the guitarists to capture blues guitar tropes as a more-than-viable alternative to Barber’s efforts to incorporate piano blues. The remaining composer in Sherren’s suite was Pat Metheny with his “Letter from Home.” Taken as a whole, the suite provided a first-rate overview of Sherren’s arranging skills and the duo’s capacity to embrace a broad variety of styles.